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September 14, 2013

3 quarterbacks + 2 kickers = 1 loss

A little more than seven minutes and six questions into his postgame press conference following his team's unsightly 30-29 loss to Fordham Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, first-year Temple head football coach Matt Rhule declined the suggestion made by Rich Burg, who handles the team's football sports media relations operations, that the next question from reporters would be the last question.

"I'll answer them all, Rich," Rhule said. "Shoot, let's be honest here."

Rhule was in no mood to dodge questions or sugarcoat anything after his Owls, who had used three quarterbacks and two kickers in coming back from a 20-7 deficit to take a 29-23 lead, blew the game with four seconds left when Fordham quarterback Michael Nebrich hit wide receiver Sam Ajala on a 29-yard touchdown pass on third down.

Once Michael Marando hit the deciding extra point and once quarterback Connor Reilly -- who came into the game after Juice Granger started it and after freshman P.J. Walker got his shot -- took a sack as the clock expired, the final nails were in the coffin and reality set in.

Any perceived bright spots shown in the losses to Notre Dame and Houston have, at least for the moment, been washed away. Temple suffered its first loss to an FCS program since 2009 when Villanova beat the Owls at the Linc, and the program is off to its first 0-3 start since a 0-5 start in 2007.

There's an extra sting, an extra layer of embarrassment, when an FBS team loses to an FCS team. It happens, but it's not supposed to happen.

Rhule knows it. He was a Temple assistant when the Owls lost that game to Villanova and fans wondered why the program would even risk playing the game and thought it had nothing to gain from it.

He knows he and his players and his coaches will get berated on message boards and social media, and he expects it and owns it.

"I'll be completely honest with you - people should take shots at me right now," Rhule said. "They should take shots at us. We shouldn't have lost that game. Let's be honest. I'm going to be straight up with you guys. We're better than that team, but they played really good.

"We went out and played a certain way at Notre Dame. Did it look the same to you today?"

The short answer is no.

With Reilly out at the start of the game with a right knee injury, Granger got the start, but both the offense and the defense sputtered as Fordham (3-0), which beat Villanova last week, took a 20-7 lead midway through the third quarter behind field goals of 44 and 47 yards from Marando, a 16-yard run from running back Carlton Koonce and an 18-yard touchdown pass from Nebrich to Brian Wetzel.

Granger, a senior who started the last two games of the 2012 season, gave Temple a short-lived 7-3 lead (struggling freshman placekicker Jim Cooper Jr. hit the extra point but was later lifted in favor of fellow freshman Nick Visco when he hit the right upright and missed from 23 yards out in the second quarter) at the 10:27 mark of the second quarter but was otherwise ineffective, completing just 6 of his 15 passes for 58 yards while also throwing an interception and taking a sack.

Reilly didn't practice on Monday or Tuesday despite finishing out last week's game against Houston, and Rhule wanted to keep Reilly out of harm's way this week and give him the bye week to heal before the team plays again at Idaho Sept. 28.

But Reilly eventually spoke up.

"Connor just said, 'Coach, I'm going. I'm good,'" Rhule said. "I just felt at that point I could tell with the way the game was going if we didn't do something, we weren't going to move the football. And once we put Connor in there, it changed."

It certainly did.

Reilly came in at the 6:14 mark of the third quarter and engineered a 10-play, 88-yard drive that took just 3:11 off the game clock and culminated in a Kenny Harper four-yard touchdown run. Visco's extra point cut Fordham's lead to 20-14 with 3:10 left in the third.

After Fordham's next drive stalled, Reilly capped an eight-play, 77-yard drive with his own touchdown run, a 15-yard scamper up the middle at the 12:41 mark of the fourth quarter that, with the help of Visco's extra point, gave the Owls a 21-20 lead.

And after Fordham regained the lead on a Marando 24-yard field goal with 7:03 to go, Reilly responded again on the very next series, this time finishing off a six-play, 50-yard drive with a seven-yard laser over the middle of the end zone to tight end and former quarterback Chris Coyer for his first passing touchdown and Coyer's first receiving touchdown of their respective careers. And when Granger came in to convert a two-point conversion run, Temple had a 29-23 lead with 4:34 remaining.

"This week, I was kind of like the emergency quarterback," Reilly said. "I was going to come in if need be but wanted to stay out and rest the knee a little bit. It happened that I had to come in and then we moved the ball. It was good for our offense to move it and I think it brought a little life and energy to the sidelines."

Reilly, who told OwlScoop.com that he played with a bone bruise and a sprained ACL in his right knee, finished the day 7 of 8 passing for 69 yards and the touchdown pass to Coyer. Harper's 105 rushing yards were a career high, and the touchdown was his fourth of the season, and freshman Zaire Williams got going to the tune of 81 yards on 14 carries.

But it wasn't enough to cover up the warts and blemishes that still exist on the other side of the ball.

Koonce, who was once recruited by Temple out of nearby Rancocas Valley High School in South Jersey, carved up Temple with 168 yards on 27 carries. Nebrich, a Connecticut transfer, completed 23 of 36 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns. Ajala, who caught the game-winner, got 134 yards on seven catches, and Tebucky Jones, also a UConn transfer, caught seven passes - including a 40-yarder - for 109 yards.

When the dust cleared, the stats showed Temple allowed Fordham to convert 3 of 5 fourth-down chances and surrendered 520 yards.

Williams, a highly recruited tailback out of South Jersey's Timber Creek High School, said he felt "dead inside" after the game. He also said senior defensive tackle Levi Brown addressed the team after Rhule did in the locker room and simply said the team had to "get our (crap) together."

Fordham's game-winning drive went 13 plays and 71 yards. It was left hanging by a thread but survived when Nebrich barely got two yards on a fourth-and-2 situation from the Temple 49, and it found life again when Nebrich again got the bare minimum on a 4th-and-6 scramble of six yards.

On the game-winning touchdown pass, Ajala was clearly a few feet out of bounds along the right sideline, and Rhule ran about 30 feet onto the field to challenge the call before the extra point was kicked. A receiver can be eligible to catch the ball if the officials feel he was pushed out of bounds, and Rhule said that was the explanation he got.

So over the next two weeks, Temple will have to stew in its own juices before it gets the chance to play again. The Owls would have to win six of their last nine games to become bowl-eligible, but they'll have to win at least one game before they can entertain any such thoughts.

Rhule has been here before. Before he spent last season as the assistant offensive line coach with the New York Giants, he was at Temple for the 0-5 start in 2007 and the loss to Villanova in 2009. He even equated Saturday's loss to the gut-wrenching Hail Mary pass the team surrendered in a loss at Buffalo in 2008.

He was also here when Temple went to bowl games in 2009 and 2011, so he knows what it takes to get things turned around, and he knows those steps have to be taken soon.

"I take responsibility for (Saturday's loss), but what happened after we lost a couple of years ago to Villanova was this team just finally took responsibility for the way they play," Rhule said. "That's what I have to do as the head coach. I've got to get this team to take responsibility for the way they're going to play. People are going to sit there and blame this kid, blame that kid, blame me. OK. They should. But at the end of the day, come on. You can't throw the ball up on (third) down with four seconds left and the guy just goes up and catches the ball. You can't allow that to happen. There's a lot of guys that can share in that.

"I'm really disappointed and I'm really embarrassed, but I'm in no way discouraged because I see a couple puppies out there running around like Zaire that are making a lot of plays, and I see what Connor can be. So we've just got to go back to work. And they're going to hear all the noise and a bunch of those kids are going to say, 'What about this? What about that?' But we'll hold this team together because we have good coaches and we have good seniors and we'll hold the team together, and the young kids will come on.

"At some point we're going to look up, and I hope it's soon, and you guys are going to look up and see a really good team. People might not believe that. I don't know. But I do.

Extra points

After Saturday's game, Rhule explained his decision to play Walker, the team's promising freshman quarterback, and forfeit any chance of him redshirting this season.

"I made the decision I was going to put Juice in and if it didn't go the way we wanted it to go, I was going to play P.J," Rhule said. "I have a lot of confidence in P.J. Juice kind of banged his shoulder up down by the goal line and he kept doing this (rotating his shoulder). We got the ball down there on that drive where we missed the field goal. We had a couple of hitches, spring hitches wide open that were hitting the ground, and I just wanted to go to the next guy. I wanted to go to P.J. and I just felt like we'll probably need him at some point now."

OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at jgdicarlo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.


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